Walkabout New Path for Homeless

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 6 a.m. February 2, 2018

Officers are walking alongside Aboriginal Elders to help police create a safe place in the city’s core.

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Aboriginal Elder Don Debassige walks along Dundas St. W. with Constables Michael Jeffrey and David McAllister

The Aboriginal Walkabout program, which began in late 2016, sees officers walk the downtown core, weekly, to connect with indigenous people who are homeless.

“Our goal is to try and build a better partnership between the community and the police,” says Constable Mike Jeffrey, Aboriginal Liaison Officer with 51 Division, which covers the Yonge-Dundas Square area where many homeless congregate – many times creating disorder by panhandling, fighting or experiencing a mental-health crisis at the country’s busiest intersection. “We want to connect them with the help they need.”

Jeffrey said indigenous people have often had a negative relationship with police because of their life on the street or through their placement in residential schools as children.

“We’re trying to change and build the relationship with the Aboriginal community in Toronto,” said Jeffrey.

He said he was able to connect Aboriginal Elder Andrew Wesley with a woman who went to the same residential school while walking in Allen Gardens.

“It’s very powerful when you think that, as a police officer, I can bring someone who knows them and went to same residential school. That gives me a lot of street credibility,” said Jeffrey, who said the traditional enforcement approach of charging, ticketing or arresting homeless people has not resulted in fewer people on the street.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place. I don’t want to arrest someone and put handcuffs on someone and take them to jail because they don’t have a place to sleep, but I don’t want them to die on the street either – what do I do?”

Wesley earned the title of Elder because of his efforts working with the homeless community.

“To be an Elder is to be a teacher, to be honest, to respect all creation – not only human. And also to be a spiritual person. I know people look up to that because they need that. I always try to bring a message of goodwill and respect for the way they live and their being,” said Wesley, who tries to connect with members of the homeless community by addressing their immediate as well as spiritual needs.

An Elder can be respected as a good hunter, a provider, a teacher or a role model. He brings that role to police officers also.

“I want to share my knowledge with my friends, the policemen, and to educate them about where these homeless people are coming from. Many are the products of residential schools – or their parents, it’s inter-generational. There are also people affected by the Sixties Scoop, where people were taken from one foster home to another,” Wesley says.

He also wants homeless people to empathize with the people who live, work and play downtown.

“I want to explain what business is all about, it’s their livelihood, it’s what they like doing,” says Wesley, of nurturing mutual respect between street people and the business community.

@TorontoPolice Downtown Yonge Aboriginal Walkabout Program

Everyone belongs in Toronto and on Yonge St., but how do we accommodate that?

The program is a partnership also with the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association (DYBIA) who have engaged with police, the City of Toronto and social agencies to search for solutions to people panhandling, sleeping and spending their days along the sidewalks.

“This is the meeting place for Torontonians. This is a place for all Canadians to come and meet,” says Mark Garner, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director of the DYBIA, of the 42 million people who walk the city’s main north-south corridor each year. “Everyone belongs in Toronto and on Yonge St., but how do we accommodate that?”

He says the BIA has sought to understand why people are homeless and has had success directing them to resources to help get them off the street. The Walkabout program is directly supported by Yonge BIA Senior Economic Development Manager Pauline Larsen.

“Based on the complexity of issues on the street, it can’t be done by a single entity. The BIA can’t do this work, the Toronto Police can’t do this work and outreach can’t do this work alone,” Garner said. “It takes a consolidated focus and the partnership to deal with these complex issues. We’re setting a new standard with community policing and engagement and I think it’s second to none. I think we’re going to see the evolution of this community engagement and policy and it will roll out throughout the city.”

There are plans to expand the program into 52, 14 and 55 Divisions this year and other BIAs have expressed interest in partnering with police.

The Walkabout has been recognized with a Mayor’s Community Safety Award, which resulted in a $1,000 prize that was invested in an indigenous art program, as well as to pay for testing for an indigenous person who wants to become a police officer. The program and participants were also recognized with a Chief of Police Excellence Award. 

A woman in TPS uniform smiling
Constable Sue Crawford speaks to an Aboriginal artist selling his wares on the sidewalk

Constables Susan Crawford and David McAllister also participate in the walkabouts.

“Traditionally, we took an enforcement approach. We charged people, moved them along but did not give them any options,” says McAllister, who acts as a liaison officer with the Downtown Yonge BIA. “Everyone who comes to Toronto, at one point, will come to Yonge and Dundas. It’s the same for tourists to the most marginalized people. The enforcement model, quite frankly, hasn’t worked. We keep seeing new faces, new people, coming along with the same issues.”

He said homeless people need to be given options and supports.

Elder Don Debassige, who has been precariously housed and struggled with alcohol, says they are trying to find a way to reach people, to introduce or reintroduce them to help.

“They see us as the same as them. We want to help them make better choices to find a better place,” he says of the incremental visits adding up. “People change, they do… We’re glad to do this for the people. They’re only humans too. We don’t want to see anything happen to them.” 

On the street, Wesley often passes along the seven grandfather teachings of well-being: wisdom, humility, respect, bravery, love, honesty, truth.

“You have to practise these things every day. Because, if you miss one, you are out of balance,” says Wesley, who has been working with homeless people for the past 15 years.

The enforcement model, quite frankly, hasn’t worked. We keep seeing new faces, new people, coming along with the same issues

Jeffrey says he’s learned much about indigenous teachings and himself.

“It’s a different perspective we’re getting,” said Jeffrey, noting he has indigenous roots through his mother, a Mohawk from Kanesatake lands in Quebec. “I’ve learned different approaches to dealing with the Aboriginal community, learned something about my history, my family. I’ve seen the Elders give teachings and receive teachings themselves from homeless people.”

He says the program is supported by the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, and Nishnawbe Homes, among other organizations.

“We’re building some great bridges,” Crawford says. “The people on the street are quite welcoming… they’re really encouraged when we explain what we’re trying to do and that we’re working with the Elders,” says the Moss Park Neighbourhood Officer.

She said they have seen people seeking help.

“We can offer them a different place to get housing or a place to go during the day, to give them alternatives to sitting on the pavement on Yonge St. and help them and hopefully change their life a little bit,” Crawford says. 

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